Gujarati Girls

You never know what – or who – you are going to find on Facebook.

For Roma Parikh, it was Shivani Patel.

It was 2014, and Parikh had just decided to enroll in Manhattan College as a civil engineering major.

“My mom was like, ‘Roma, see if there’s any Indian people at your school,” Parikh recalled. “So I typed in exactly that. I went on the Class of 2018 page and I typed in the typical Shah, Patel, Parikh, Desai last names […] and [Shivani Patel] popped up.”

Parikh, 21, grew up in a Hindu family in Old Bridge, N.J. Both of her parents were born in India.

The two did not make contact until later at an admissions event. Parikh, searching for the right time to introduce herself, struck up conversation with Patel on a bus-ride to visit the engineering facilities in Leo Hall.

Parikh recalled asking Patel, “Are you Gujarati?” Patel responded in the affirmative, and the rest, as Parikh told it, is history.

Gujarat is the westernmost state in India, straddling the Arabian Sea between Mumbai to the south and the Pakistani border to the northwest. The word “Gujarati” refers to the language spoken there.

The pair hit it off instantly.

“We bonded over One Direction and that’s where our friendship ignited,” Patel said.

The two would have more in common than they initially thought.

“Later, I found out that [Patel’s] mom saw us walk in and was like, ‘Shivani, go talk to them, they’re Indian,” Parikh said.

Patel, 21, also had a religious Hindu upbringing in Cornwall, N.Y., and her parents are also from Gujarat.

Parikh and Patel decided to room together their freshman year in Chrysostom Hall. They made the move to Jasper Hall in their sophomore year and have occupied the same room ever since.

Now seniors, Parikh and Patel are prominent figures on campus. Parikh is the president of the college’s chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Patel is vice president. Patel is also president of MC’s chapter of the Construction Management Association of America (CMAA), while Parikh is heavily involved in campus ministry as a student employee and retreat organizer.

For Parikh and Patel, food has been central to their Hindu upbringing.

“Food is a big thing, like, a big aspect,” Patel said.

A typical Gujarati meal is composed of five components: roti, ghee, dal, bhat and shak.

Roti is a thin circular flatbread, similar to naan bread or a tortilla. It is rolled out into a thin pancake using a rolling pin and then pressed with oil.

The roti is typically served with ghee – a heavily reduced butter.

Dal is a thin soup of tomato, lentils and Indian herbs and spices. Bhat is a rice.

Shak is a vegetable dish with multiple variations. The most common variation is sauteed okra.

“Everything’s eaten by hand,” Patel said. “Nothing is with forks and knives, spoons, none of that stuff.”

“They’ll take the roti, then they’ll put it in the bhat, and then they’ll take it with the dal and then they’ll put it in the shak,” Patel said.

The dishes are served with lemon, bay leaves and onion to enhance the flavor.

“If you’re not eating it with onions, you’re not getting the full flavor,” Parikh said.

Despite its large importance in Gujarati culture, the dishes, according to Parikh, do not have a large following in the United States outside of ethnic Gujaratis.

“Our parents love Gujurati food, but the kids never grew up liking Gujurati food,” Parikh said. “The food that you find in restaurants and stuff like that, when you want to go out to an Indian restaurant, it’s Punjabi food. It’s another region of India.”

As children, both Parikh and Patel learned Hindu prayers and fasted.

“It’s a certain week during the summer time, and you fast. I fasted with all of my cousins. We would go to the temple early in the morning, we would pray, like, to this plant,” Parikh explained. “My mom would sit and help me with it.”

During this fast, Parikh was only allowed one meal per day. During the day, she was allowed only to snack on fruits. Parikh did this fast for one week over five consecutive years, starting when she was three years old.

Parikh described Hinduism as a faith centered on peace and prayer.

“A lot of our teachings go into prayer,” Parikh said. Small temples for prayer are found in most Hindu homes, including where Parikh grew up.

Parikh recalled how her father would say nightly prayers with her and her sister.

“It stopped as I got older, and a part of me wishes it didn’t,” Parikh said.

“When I was younger, we had big family parties, potlucks, dress-up, big Indian parties for Diwali, which is like our New Years,” Patel said.

Diwali, which fell on Tuesday, Oct. 17 this year, is the Hindu New Year’s celebration, and is, for the Hindu faithful, the most joyous time of year. Even though Parikh and Patel were not able to celebrate the holiday with their families, they still observed the new year once the clock struck midnight.

“That night, it hit twelve o’clock, and I said, like, ‘Sal Mubarak,’ Happy New Year, to Shiv,” Parikh said. “And we hugged, and it was cute.”

For Parikh and Patel, two members of a small Hindu community at Manhattan College, this is how many religious obligations come and go.

“Being at a Catholic school, I feel like it’s harder for people like us to celebrate. There’s not many Indians who go here. I think the percentage is very low,” Patel said.

“Not many people around here are Hindu or Gujarati, and so it’s… difficult. I feel like I miss that part of my culture,” Parikh said.

Early in her college experience, Parikh said she began to separate from her faith. But her experience in the Kairos retreat in her freshman year brought her back into the faith.

“I recognized that I was ignoring [my faith.] I recognized that I was trying not to answer certain questions that I had because of answers that I didn’t want to find, or because I didn’t want to cave, in a way, to my parents,” Parikh said. “I was afraid that I gave a little, they’d take a lot.”

“I go back home more often and I specifically tell my dad like, ‘hey, dad, let’s go to the temple,” Parikh said. “And for me, that was a big deal […] and it was a big deal for my dad.”

Parikh hopes to someday visit her extended family in India. Patel has been to India several times, and travels there about once a year.

Parikh and Patel are not sure of what their next steps will be after graduation. Both are currently evaluating several alternatives, deciding between where or if to go to graduate school, where to live and where to work.

But, for these two, one thing is for certain – no amount of miles will keep these friends apart.